Blackjack: Would counting cards have made me money on my honeymoon?

Blackjack: Would counting cards have made me money on my honeymoon?

NPR's latest "This American Life" show dealt with blackjack and – probably more importantly – how to win at it.

In the episode, MIT Blackjack Team member Andy Bloch taught host Ira Glass, producer Robyn Semien and the listeners how to count cards.

It's seems fairly simple. Start at zero. Every time a 10, jack, queen, king or ace shows up, deduct one from your count. Every time a lesser card shows up, add one to your count. Once your count is seven or higher, it's time to start betting big. If they count is negative seven or less, perhaps it's time to switch tables.

Not that the lesson is going to do me much good. Gambling and I don't get along. I never win, and I hate losing money to chance. It's not a very fulfilling relationship, and we've decided just to be friends from here on out – the kind that never see each other, yet still is aware of the other's existence through Facebook.

Granted, my gambling history is quite sparse.

I've never bet on a sports game. Just the thought of putting my hard-earned money at risk on the chance a ball flies through the air a certain way sends chills down my wallet. And while I have bet on horses a few times – never more than a few bucks – the results have been disastrous. My betting on a horse is the surest possible way for it not to place in the top 3 in the race. I've even taken to betting on the favorite to show (end up in the top 3) just to test my powers of horse slowing. I still have never won ANY money on a horse race. My very presence with money on the line is racehorse kryptonite.

And then there's blackjack, which – since I regularly won big virtual money playing it on my cellphone – I believed was a surefire way to make easy money.

Then I sat down at a blackjack table in the casino of a Puerto Rican hotel during my honeymoon. It turns out – shockingly – that gambling on a cellphone with fake money is NOTHING like gambling in a casino where they insist on keeping the money you've lost.

After quickly going up $60, I was just as quickly down $40 prompting me to even more quickly leave the table. I learned there I don't have the stomach for gambling. Losing money due to chance is much worse than gaining money due to chance.

In some people, gambling provides a thrill. For me, gambling – at its best – provides a sense of dread followed by mild relief. If I want to feel that way on a regular basis, I can just visit the dentist more often.

But, as I listened to Bloch describe how to count cards on the "This American Life" show, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I should give blackjack another chance.

Then, Glass and Semien went to try their luck at a casino after Bloch's lessons and ended up losing a couple of hundred dollars.

My stomach churned at the thought of it.

Glass and Semien ended the show talking about how they want to go back. As for me, I'll stick to losing a few bucks here and there on the horses. Someone has to keep the favorites in their place.

• Joe Grace is a writer and journalist who lives in Chicago with his wife. Write to him at

Filed under: Gaming, Joe Grace Columns

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